Beach reads are stressing me out, and I'm not alone

Political chaos and international threats create too much anxiety to make summer thrillers enjoyable.
Illustration of people reading on beach while a war goes on around them.
As we appear to totter on the edge of another war in the Middle East, action-packed international thrillers don't make for relaxing escape reads.Cynthia Kittler / for NBC News
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By Clea Simon

The sound of waves. The smell of sunscreen. The flash-bang of a stun grenade exploding as the mission begins. Once, for me, these would have been inextricably linked, the signs of summer, when heavier fiction is put aside for the guilty pleasure of a thriller or novel of international suspense. But this year, I’ve realized that the anticipated appearance in my e-reader of my usual annual indulgence — the latest Daniel Silva thriller — is filling me with dread. As we appear to totter on the edge of another war in the Middle East, I’m not sure the action-packed derring-do of onetime Israeli agent Gabriel Allon (Silva’s series hero, this time starring in “The New Girl,” out on July 16) is the summer fun I crave.

If the point of summer reading is to indulge in escapist fantasies, where can I escape to if the books leave me in the same state of existential panic that I started out in?

In this age of anxiety, political disruption and threatened international conflict, I, for one, am too stressed out to enjoy the traditional thrillers that have long dominated the beach read landscape. If the point of summer reading is to indulge in escapist fantasies, where can I escape to if the books leave me in the same state of existential panic that I started out in? Looking at the slumping performance of thrillers on the current bestseller lists, it seems I’m not alone in my mood swing.

Perhaps the problem is in the standard setup – typically some kind of horrific violence that kicks off the drama and ramps up the urgency of what will follow. In the case of my beloved Silva, that is frequently a terrorist attack: “ISIS terrorists burst into the theater and began firing into the crowd,” he writes in 2017’s “House of Spies.” “More than a hundred would perish during the first thirty seconds of the assault, and another hundred would die in the terrible five minutes that followed, as the terrorists moved methodically through the theater, row by row, seat by seat…”

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Such horror then serves as justification for equally brutal action by our putative hero, Allon. “The first two shots obliterated the bomber’s face. The rest he fired after the man was on the pavement. He fired until his gun was empty.” Granted, this isn’t the graphic, bloody violence that has come to characterize many white-knuckle action reads, what those of us who write crime fiction have dubbed “murder porn.” If anything, it’s slightly removed. Almost poetic. But these days, I’m finding it all less entertaining. And that includes the so-called hero’s aggressive response, no matter how commensurate.

Maybe that’s why, with the summer just begun, the July 7 New York Times bestseller list for combined e-book and hardcover fiction is being topped by a different kind of novel for a change, the kind that roots its drama in relationships — not just the perennial feel-good of romance or the frothy fun of chick-lit (the summer thriller blockbuster’s perennial kid sister, always tagging along), but big books, serious novels that stress family ties and friendships maintained through conversation or even letters.

As we navigate this era of #MeToo and #ShePersisted, perhaps we are recognizing not only the validity of these stories, but of the women who create them.

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I wonder if we are seeing a paradigm shift because of readers like me. Readers whose first choice for conflict resolution is discussion or diplomacy, rather than the seemingly requisite violence — Lee Child, I’m looking at you — of previous chart-toppers.

This week alone, Elin Hilderbrand’s family drama “The Summer of ’69” takes the top slot, bumping the previous list-topper, Delia Owens’ “Where the Crawdads Sing,” down to second place. As for the usual suspects, John Grisham makes an appearance in third, while James Patterson (with David Ellis) is at seven and Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s fantasy/sci-fi hybrid “Good Omens,” which has a TV adaptation, is 10th. That leaves the majority of the list to be filled out by the likes of Elizabeth Gilbert, Jennifer Weiner, Lisa Wingate, Celeste Ng and Heather Morris— none of whom resolve their conflicts with anything more explosive than an emotional reveal.

Granted, this is hardly a revolution. Hilderbrand, Gilbert, Wingate and Wiener are perpetual bestsellers, and Owens’ debut novel — a compelling Southern gothic with a strong and idiosyncratic heroine – rose to prominence after Reese Witherspoon chose it for her book club. These kinds of relationship-dominated books often make an appearance on the charts — and writers of more traditional romances, like Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts and, yes, E.L. James of “50 Shades of Grey” fame — also routinely top the list.

Still, the balance appears to be shifting. Not only are these less action-oriented books taking precedence, they’re occupying more slots overall. Last year at this time, only four of the top 10 books were relationship-oriented. The year before, only three were (unless you want to count the re-issue of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”). None of those books occupied the top slot, never mind the top two.

These numbers point out another commonality among these books, beyond their reliance on human drama rather than weaponry. They are more typically written by women. So maybe there’s an additional reason why I and other readers are turning toward these novels. As we navigate this era of #MeToo and #ShePersisted, perhaps we are recognizing not only the validity of these stories, but of the women who create them — and their female protagonists — stressing their right to be heard (or read).

Maybe in a month, my mood will have changed — and the bestseller lists will once again be dominated by the big shoot-’em-ups as well. But right now, I’m finding myself looking ahead to “The Lady in the Lake” by Laura Lippman (coming July 23), in which a middle-aged woman seeks answers to the murder of a younger woman killed years before. Odds are, smarts rather than gunplay will prove key, leaving me a little more hopeful about humanity’s chance for survival.

Or maybe I’ll revisit the works of the late Judith Krantz. Something with scandal and a soupçon of sex. It is summer, after all.